Cycling in South Africa
Phil Parton and I are cycling in South Africa for a couple of weeks and then a few days of watching the wild life. All was in order and I was waiting for my late flight out of Melbourne when a text arrived from Phil traveling earlier with the rest of the tour group. it simply read ” we are out of our league” I looked at it once and closed my phone. Ten minutes later I went back and checked it again. What had I signed us up for ? Thirty hours later, bike in hand, I arrived in Cape Town struggling to remember my own name and happy to have a guy deliver me to Drifters Inn by the beach. I woke six hours later to find the group already heading out for an early spin. I hid my head under the pillow until they had left. The room buzzed with mozzies, I had been eaten alive in my coma. I decided to rise and put the bike together and before I knew it was cycling along the promenade with a clean fresh breeze knocking the jet lag out of me. The others arrived back soon and I saw what Phil had mentioned, these guys meant business. Not social riders, racing guys and semi retired blokes who should be eating donuts down by the sea. Instead they are not happy unless they are traveling hundreds of klms a day.
The following day we had another ride around the coast taking in the course for the Cape Argus bike ride, the largest bike race in the world. There were 43 thousand competitors this year in temperatures of 34 degrees.
Yes, you heard right, 43000 competitors.
I was happy to finish in just under four hours for the 110 klms and in the top 20% for my stately age. It is a course of coastal passes and is a long way away from the nice flat riding of Beach Rd back in Melbourne. I ran into a few Aussies as I rode, there are thousands of Internationals that fly here to compete. Ken Hill our local tour guide was racing in his age group and ended up in a spectacular finish line crash in his classification. Try utube” Cape Argus spectacular cycle crash 2012 “or similar, it is a doozy. The poor winner of the event got little air play as Ken was the main piece of footage shown, the world loves blood. He is tough bugger because within two days he was riding with us again after spending the hours after the crash in hospital.
Buggered and distracted by the coastal beauty.
To get over the bike ride we were sent up the side of Table Mountain the following morning. In searing heat we started scampering up the rocky face of the looming presence of Cape Town. We arrived at the top an hour later crimson faced and dripping wet a real sight to the other tourists who were serenely wandering between the viewing points and the kiosk selling ice-cream. What they thought of us I don’t know ?
The afternoon was spent on Robben Island a short trip from Cape Town and the holding place of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela until the late eighties. It was a very sobering experience to see the hardship and cruelty dealt out under apartheid. The guided tours are presented by former inmates giving a real edge to the penal island.
The real riding tour starts the next day and Ken made arrangements for a friend to cover until he felt a little better. “He rides ok but he talks a bit.” When we stepped down from our tour truck there was Phil Liggett, the famous Tour De France commentator. He was a great guy and enjoyed our ride so much he joined us again the following morning with his wife. They have a place on the coast near Cape Town and truly enjoy the life style here. In a few weeks he will start his year’s calling of all of the big bike rides. We rode down to a winery after a long pass at high-speed only to come across an extended family of baboons on the road, smoke came from the tyres as we tried to read their direction as like kangaroos they only take one step in any direction before scampering some place else. it could only happen in South Africa I guess. We spent a leisurely late afternoon in the winery whilst some of the group could be seen squirming under the table keen to do more klms.
The Country is spectacular and we have spent some time in rolling pastoral hills and hugging the wild coast. One night we arrived covered in dust to a luxury country property, their deep stone swimming pool beckoning. Suddenly the days hundred klms dissolved away as we lay back in the water looking up at the same mountain backdrop which had hurt us only half an hour earlier. As the days progress I am getting stronger however I have had a funny stomach since the ride started and will be glad when I can hold food down all day, especially as we are burning a lot of fuel riding.
It rained this morning for the first time and I have snuck away from the others to catch up on my diary, there has been little free time. The others are lunching and I am unable to partake. Tomorrow they are talking about 190 klms with two major climbs, call a doctor ! Soon the pain will be over and we relax for a few days in a safari park, at this rate I may well throw myself at the mercy of a hungry lion.
The group having a leisurely lunch after burning some calories.
Our tour bus, a massive high off the ground safari bus with a bike trailer
Mala Mala game park.
No sooner have I packed my bike and felt the freedom of walking without tenderness than Phil and I find ourselves at the airport with only one of the other guys from our tour. As I have said before most of the group are cyclists first, tourists a very long way back second. How you could come to Africa and NOT want to go and see some of the world’s last free? roaming animals I cannot fathom. Anyway most went home immediately the cycling finished.
We are off to Mala Mala a private game park adjoining Kruger National Park. A flight back to Johannesburg then alight aircraft direct to the park. They are not wild dirt bush airstrips either. A nice smooth piece of bitumen meeting us at the two touchdowns we encountered. The fact that you drift about in the air still doesn’t make it my first choice of travel but look where it gets you. We are taken by jeep to our camp, a luxury affair with permanent rooms with thatched roofs and views down onto a broad river. Our room is huge and a slow ticking fan sweeps cool air down from six meters above. No sooner have we arrived than we are bundled into a jeep for an afternoon of viewing. Would sir like a cup of tea before heading out? Sir would, no sugar thank you, I want to hold back that four kgs I just lost sweating on the bike.
Phil had tried to warn me of the abundance of wildlife we would encounter but I simply was not ready. Monkeys swung near the river, so many Impala, Kudu, bucks, wildebeest. A bit further along we come across elephants gorging on half of the forest, there are baby elephants everywhere.
A call comes across the radio that a pair of leopard have been spotted and we charge off in pursuit. Another jeep is sitting there quietly observing. The big male is stretched out panting furiously the female a little more animated. Our guide says nothing,we just watch them and we are only five metres away. The female leopard then swaggers past the male swinging her hips like she is in some nightclub. The male suddenly shows some interest ” can I buy you a drink” he mumbles, I’m sure he said that. The next minute he has mounted the unsuspecting ? female and is biting her deeply on the neck. The jeep opposite has two newly married couples on board, The women have grasped their partners hands firmly, surely this is not going to happen to me they are thinking…and not with people watching, surely. As quickly as it started it is over, The male eyes have a distinct red to them and I’m sure they were glazing over. Yeah, yeah I hear you girls cry, bloody typical…. now can we get some sleep. I felt like lighting a cigarette…
That surely was going to be enough but an hour later with dusk falling we turn a corner and there are three white rhino (actually black in colour) on the road and when I say on the road they took up the WHOLE road. Massive beasts mother, father and baby. They certainly have a presence although they move steadily enough. We spend the last hour wandering in semi darkness enjoying watching the elephants swim in a large pool of muddy water. They trumpet with glee, I wish I could make a noise like that.
Back at camp it’s eight o’clock and time for a beer or a gin and tonic. Gin and tonic it is, old chap. Out on the front lawn abutting the river a hippo waddled back towards the river. I’m sure these animals must be on a some type of control system. The air is now full of the African night, all of those exotic noises you heard on Tarzan movies filling the air. Food here is a killer in its frequency and the outdoor setting spectacular, I wander back to our room just like the hippo heading to the river. Must make a mention on the large quantity of khaki clothing I have spotted here. I feel very much out of it in my coloured shorts, t-shirt and thongs although you must dress in “longs” for dinner, hey what?
One day into our safari and I had seen every animal in those old National Geographic magazines you flick through at the dentist. I was not prepared to see elephants storm towards our vehicle, cheetah content to allow us to follow them through thick grass whilst peering back at us with a slight air of supremacy and hippos snorting outside our room in the night .
Africa really is boys own territory. If someone had said “come on lets go out looking for lions on foot” you’d laugh at them but put me in an open topped jeep painted green and I am there at 5.55am ready to go. I need a good talking to. Our guide needs a bigger talking to, he would spring from the jeep, no door on his side at all and grasping the shotgun always cradled on the bonnet, race off towards lion prints. Who’s going to drive home a clear question in my mind. We became so accustomed to this that we agreed to have breakfast out in the middle of the plains next to a watering hole with paw prints the size of dinner plates clearly visible in the muddy banks. “What’s that noise ?” asks Phil as our guide Benz returns to the breakfast, spread out on the jeep’s bonnet ? “Oh just a dying buffalo” replies Benz and tucks into another piece of mango ! Not for the first time Phil starts this laughter that explains in part the weirdness that happens daily in this country. Expect anything and you will never be disappointed here. We have yet to see a lion although I have bruises on my backside to prove that we spent serious hours bouncing over very rough terrain in pursuit of the bloody things. In the end it didn’t really matter as we saw and ticked off most of the animal scorecard they leave tucked next to your bed on the first night. “Did we see a zebra” I’d call to Phil who was half asleep, tick. “How about a snoring puddle frog ?” They too avoided us, but gave us hours of entertainment just considering what and where you would find them .
Hats off to the dung beetles which had the fly problem well under control.This was a good thing considering how much dumps out of the back of an elephant daily. Mostly on the roads ready to be splattered by the battalion of following jeeps. Benz told a funny story of driving home quickly early in his guiding to be belted in the face by a low flying beetle, they are very hard and sharp and hurt much he said with some authority. Every day he drives with no windscreen and a thick pair of sunglasses firmly in place.
As quickly as the safari started it is over. After a final concerted effort to spot a lion we return to camp and pack. I’m keen for a final swim but Phil convinces me to have a shower instead as it’s getting close to our flight out. I come out of the bathroom to Phil rolling about in fits of laughter. Right in front of our sliding door to the balcony is a very interested elephant and big, I mean you can see nothing other than his massive frame. He spots us and moves on to next door just as our neighbour Barry is returning from the pool. He spots the elephant who spots him and in two seconds his jeans, wallet and passport fly in the air and he is gone in a blur. Big tough Aussie, where did he disappear to? Hiding behind the curtains, he tells me later. The elephant would have used the curtain as a serviette after eating another delicious pot-plant.
Ten minutes later we are off to the airstrip. Two two seater benches under a tree are the departure lounge. We watch the ten seater taxi in and thrust some rand into Benz’s hand and bid him good bye. Squeezed into the plane we are taxiing down the runway when we come to a screeching halt, fifty impala worth only one point each in the spotter’s guide book have made a late dash across the runway. having their own last laugh. The pilot turns around and we start our acceleration again, this time successfully we get up into the air. The last we had seen of Benz was of him following our plane rustling those impala back out into the bush.